Time to opt for harm reduction

By Ilias Bakalla

With festival season fast approaching and Shepparton having one of its own for the first time later this month, it is time to introduce pill testing.

Last season was one of the deadliest ever, with six drug-related deaths at music festivals in NSW prompting a coronial inquest.

A draft of the state coroner's report was leaked on Tuesday, revealing some of the recommendations. The big item on the list was pill testing.

Those who oppose pill testing say that it gives a 'green light' to drug taking and normalises use.

But it is important to understand that pill testing is a harm reduction strategy that recognises drug consumption as something potentially harmful.

The tests check the purity of drugs, if there are any detrimental additives and whether the substance is what the person bought.

Based on the results, experts provide advice on how to minimise the risks associated with drug consumption.

People can speak with a peer-based AOD (alcohol or other drugs) councillor who can answer any questions they might have about their individual results and the risks associated with drug use.

This provides the space for a judgment-free conversation about the risks of drug use and information from a trusted source.

At the moment we have neither and when I reflect on my education it included trawling through user-contributed websites with wildly conflicting information and the "just say no"

There are huge social benefits to pill testing, as it can provide an op-out for festival-goers feeling peer-pressured to take drugs because now they can offer a medical excuse to their group of friends.

Pill Testing Australia has run two trials at the ACT Groovin’ The Moo festival, in 2018 and 2019. Both have been successful, as they have taken drugs out of circulation.

In 2018, 18 per cent of people who used pill-testing services said they would not use drugs after they had been tested and in 2019 seven potentially fatal pills were disposed of after they were found to have N-Ethylpentylone in them.

Pill testing has been in place for decades in Europe and there is no evidence to suggest that it increases usage.

It has consistently been able to change people’s attitudes to drug taking by suggesting a lower dosage and by offering reliable information on the risks.

Harm reduction is not a new or radical approach to drug-related health issues — think about needle exchanges and injecting rooms.

These practices have been successful in bringing down the rate of disease transmission and overdoses associated with taking heroin, amphetamines and cocaine without giving the green light to use.

The key thing learnt from last festival season is that, regardless of the legal and health risks, young people are still going to take drugs at music festivals.

Trying to prohibit drug use by increasing oversight from authorities feels like a tiresome approach.

It is time to change direction and opt for harm reduction.